Everybody should read The Communist Manifesto, and read it more than once. Short, fast-moving and written to be understood by a wide audience, it’s a gripping read, a huge intellectual accomplishment, and a way of thinking about the world that has shaped almost everything that came after it. It was once said that the second edition of Rousseau’s Confessions was bound in the skins of those who had laughed at the first; The Communist Manifesto has had the same kind of impact on our world.
The Manifesto is wrong, of course, but then almost everything is. However, most of what is written is pointless and dull. The Manifesto is anything but, and like all truly great books it is interesting and illuminating even when–or, especially when–it goes off the rails.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels dashed it off in the second half of 1847 and published it early in 1848 as revolutionary fervor was sweeping Europe. As the first copies of The Manifesto began to circulate, King Louis-Phillipe of France felt his throne begin to shake; by the end of February he had abdicated and fled to Britain. The next month, revolutions broke out in one small German state after the other (Germany would not be unified until 1871). The revolutionary excitement spread into the Austrian Empire; for a few months it looked as if every king and emperor on the European mainland would be packing his bags. Even the Pope, who at that time still ruled much of central Italy, was forced to flee Rome as the Romans proclaimed a Republic after 1900 years of imperial and papal rule.
But Marx and Engels weren’t interested in anything as trivial as making propaganda for a European revolution. They believed that they had found the key to all history, the magic decoder ring that made sense out of everything: philosophy, religion, the rise and fall of empires, culture, art. To this day there are millions of people all over the world who think they were right — and there are hundreds of millions more whose worldview has been shaped at least in part by this explosive little book.
I am one of them myself, though I don’t think many ‘big M’ Marxists would salute me as a comrade.
If you haven’t read the Manifesto, you should — and if you haven’t read it in a while, you should pick it up again. The Communist Manifesto, with all its shortcomings, is on that short list of books that every educated person should keep coming back to over a lifetime of reading and thought. Over the decades you can measure your own intellectual growth by the different ways that you read this book.
I could write a book about this book; maybe someday I will. Actually, I could write two books on the Manifesto: What Marx and Engels Got Right, and What Marx and Engels Got Wrong.
But for now I just want to highlight one of their breakthrough insights that is extremely useful today — and, as some of this blog’s longtime readers have surely figured out, it’s an insight that heavily influences my approach to history and ideas. As usual, Marx and Engels pushed it a bit too far, but their core insight– that the way we are related to the economy helps shape our ideas, our sense of right and wrong and our sense of our relationship to broader trends in history–is something I think about almost every day. I think about it when I try to understand how other people see the world, and I think about it when I’m trying to correct for my own biases and blind spots — asking myself what I’ve missed or where I’ve been unfair.
Marx and Engels weren’t the first people to have this insight, but they integrated it with an approach to the relationship of ideas and history that allowed them to criticize social thought from a new point of view. They argued that the dominant social groups in each historical era developed a worldview that justified their pretensions to power and privilege, making their particular system the culmination of the historical process or, as The American Interest’s Frank Fukuyama taught Americans to say, the end of history. Interest groups and power elites don’t just develop ideas and ideologies that favor their interests. They develop worldviews that are unconscious as well as conscious, that are the foundation of cultures and ideals. In the feudal age, the nobility and its hired hands synthesized Christianity, Germanic folk customs and classical Greco-Roman ideas into an all-encompassing world vision that stares out at us from a hundred thousand paintings, that colors the poetry of Europe for hundreds of years, and that lives on today in various forms.
In the Manifesto Marx and Engels write about the different forms of ‘socialist’ ideology that were around in 1848 and tie each of these back to specific social groups. They write about ‘feudal socialism’, the anti-capitalist writings of traditionalists who denounced capitalism for ripping up the old ‘harmonious’ social contract of the Middle Ages. They write about various forms of ‘bourgeois’ and ‘petty bourgeois’ socialism as well: utopian ideas about a better future that aren’t grounded in any realistic view of political forces or the deep conflicts in human society.
One can only imagine how they would rip into the pompous, self-deceptive ideas and theories with which our elites surround and comfort themselves today. The Asian Industrial Revolution, that enormous upheaval destroying the past social organizations and customs from China through India and Pakistan today, in reality is an affair of grinding poverty, immense human suffering and displacement, exploitation as naked and hideous as anything the London poor faced in the days of Charles Dickens, and vast contrasts between the lives of the working poor and the new rich. Yet in the view of what Marx might well call the ‘Davoisie’, the new international bourgeoisie of our times, all that ugliness and suffering disappears. It’s expected somehow that those struggling masses will go on ‘peacefully’ suffering and working without disturbing the peaceful stability of the comfortable and the rich.
Marx and Engels would mock and fillet the ideologies we have built around the word ‘development’ and they would demolish the inane models of development that our economists have been producing (and imposing on poor countries) since World War Two. Their bitter comments on the recent Wall Street bailouts contrasted with the programs of austerity forced on people around the world who had nothing to do with the financial crisis would leap off the page and grab the reader by the lapels.
Contemporary western leftists would rub their hands in joy as Marx and Engels ripped into the smug ideologies of the Davoisie and its closest allies; they would begin to squirm, though, as the two founders of the modern Communist movement turned their attention to the labor movements, Hollywood progressives and radical intellectuals of the advanced countries. The spectacle of trade union leaders in rich countries fighting free trade, and especially of the alliances they’ve made with wealthy agricultural interests in the EU and the United States would fill Marx and Engels with rage and scorn. Seeking to preserve the high living standards of a handful of privileged workers and civil servants (one of Marx and Engels’ least favorite groups of people), they try to obstruct the growth of productive forces in developing countries that, for all the misery and horror connected with that process, represents the one hope of a human life for billions of people and their children across the planet — and they call themselves ‘progressive’.
I don’t think the various strains of academic radicalism rooted in the New Left of the 1960s would much enjoy a new edition of the Manifesto, either. Marx and Engels were unreconstructed Old Lefties who saw progressive ideology as being rooted in and concerned with the interests of the masses of the working poor. The New Left emphasis on identity, ethnicity and self-expression would fill them with contempt. The academic New Left would, I am pretty certain, appear to Marx and Engels as a new form of vile and self-indulgent petty bourgeois ideology that elevates the historical despair of a class at the end of its tether into a worldview. That ideology, rampant in the academy today, is what we sometimes call postmodernism. It’s the belief that the ‘grand narratives’ of history have collapsed, including the Marxist enlightenment of proletarian revolt and the broader Enlightenment narrative of progress. Instead of a grand social march forward into a better world, society as a whole seems stagnant. Liberation is no longer a project for society at large; it is something that small groups — cultural, ethnic, sexual minorities — achieve on their own. It is a kind of dystopian version of Frank Fukuyama’s end of history: things can’t get much better, and they aren’t very good.
Marx and Engels would, I think, excoriate this ideology of ‘tenured radicals’ and foundation staff as the attempt of petty bourgeois intellectuals to console themselves for their own political irrelevance — and to take their own ironic fate as ineffective and marginal critics in a society still dominated by the demands of a capitalist order as the inevitable fate for all mankind. The ‘struggle’ to get another tenure-track position for an ethnic studies program, or to defeat a rival faction’s candidate for an academic post can be seen, sort of, as the contemporary version of the inspiring political struggles of old. One is at the barricades, even if all one ever actually does is publish technical articles in obscure journals. The continuing breakdown of academic disciplines into ever smaller and (at least in some cases) ever less relevant subspecialties reflects the wider breakdown of the social progress into the struggles of various smaller and more specialized minorities to define their identities and carve out some living space. From an old-fashioned Marxist point of view (and perhaps not only from that perspective) this looks indescribably petty and vain, especially when measured against the enormous scale of the upheavals and social explosions reshaping today’s world.
Now as usual, they would be too brutal and too sweeping in their condemnations. There are people in the western labor movements who think hard and long about how to connect the interests of working people in the rich world with those in developing countries. There are plenty of thoughtful and skilled academics out there who do important work and do it well — and postmodernism has more to say for itself than they might allow. But Marx and Engels would be right to contrast the sense of exhaustion, the tininess of the political vision and ambition of so many contemporary academics with the thundering changes and the billions of working people around the world desperately struggling to get a foothold in the modern economy. In a world like ours, with billions of poor people and a few hundred million affluent ones, and with technological changes remaking the very nature of industry at a rate the bourgeois entrepreneurs of 1848 could not have imagined, Marx and Engels would not have thought that grand narratives had collapsed. They would have seen titanic forces taking shape over the horizons and they would have predicted (a little too confidently) an age of revolutionary upheavals as sweeping and perhaps as violent as anything history had ever seen. I suspect they would have predicted that the big ideas of the future would come from out there rather than in here; that it would be people shaped by the struggles in rapidly developing countries who would generate the concepts and inspire the movements who would shape the intellectual as well as the political history of the twenty first century.
I may be missing the point completely; I’m sure that there are readers out there who could ‘unmask my ideology’ and Marxists used to say and show how my own take on the Manifesto reflects my own miserable economic interests and background. Certainly I’m not going to embrace any wild-eyed ideologies that would let the unwashed hordes past the gates of the stately Mead manor in glamorous Queens! And I’m careful to keep my copy of their collected works where the more excitable members of the grounds staff won’t see it lying around.
Anyway, on my first trip to Brussels something like twenty years ago an American journalist based in the city took me on a walking tour of the city and we passed the Grande Place, the magnificent square in the heart of the old city. At one corner of the square he pointed out an upscale restaurant. In 1848 that restaurant had been a seedy tavern where Marx and Engels would meet to go over the drafts of the Manifesto, he said. By 1990 it was filled with well-heeled tourists, and expense-account bureaucrats and lobbyists working the ins and outs of the European Union. Across the square was a Godiva chocolate shop. during World War II the SS had used it as a recruiting center to get the more ‘Aryan’ Dutch-speaking Belgians to join up. It’s the end of history, EU style; I’d love to know what Marx and Engels would think of it. I think they would regard the social peace in the west since World War II as a rare and short lived interval of relative calm in the midst of a still-accelerating revolutionary process in world history — more eye of the hurricane than end of history.
Read The Communist Manifesto. It will remind you that history is real, that it matters, and that you must strive to see the world on its own terms, rather than passively accepting the comfortable ideas and perceptions that society encourages you to take for granted. It may even prepare you for the future by giving you a glimpse into the storms ahead.
Next week on Literary Saturday: the wit and wisdom of Joseph Stalin. (Just kidding.)
Update: Of course, the reality of the USSR didn’t quite work out as Marx and Engels hoped. While checking out Eamonn Fitzgerald’s Rainy Day blog, I ran across this amazing Brezhnev era piece of Soviet entertainment. Whatever ultimately happened in the Cold War, Socialism was at least as advanced as capitalism when it comes to the production of vacuous entertainment. Highly recommended!